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JOHANNA GORDON RAKED her fingers through her short curls and glanced at the clock centered on the wall between her diplomas. Seven-thirty. No wonder her shoulders ached. She'd been hunched over the desk since four.
With a sigh, she closed a folder and added it to the neat stack on a corner of the desk. She pursed her lips. For two weeks, the budget for the nursing department at the hospital had consumed her time. Unfortunately, money would remain her focus until she found areas to cut costs without compromising patient care or breaking the current contract with the nurses. Not that Hudson Community's CEO cared about either option. She stretched to ease the tension between her shoulder blades.
"Why couldn't I…" An idea occurred and she smiled.
Something to consider. Richard Jamison didn't care which programs were dropped as long as his pet projects remained intact. Just this morning he'd reminded her she belonged to administration and to remember where her loyalties lay. Not with him. She'd risen through the ranks and saw more than the profits and losses he tossed around.
The loudspeaker on the wall crackled. "Dr. Red to the Emergency Room." In staccato fashion, the operator repeated the message three times.
With a well-honed response, Johanna rose, grabbed her briefcase and, in three strides, reached the door. The call for any surgeon meant an emergency requiring immediate surgery. Her body quivered with excitement. She dashed through the empty outer office, crossed the hall and hit the call button for the elevator.
Just like an old fire horse, she thought. The alarm clangs and I'm offrunning. She stepped into the empty car. What was her hurry? How much help would she be? She'd been away from the bedside for ten years.
As she exited on the first floor, she nearly collided with Rachel Hill. Her friend's dark hair had slipped from the neat bun at her nape. Like a sail, Rachel's lab coat flew behind her. She carried two units of blood.
Johanna frowned. Rachel usually worked the day shift. "Bad accident?" Johanna asked.
"The worst. A six-year-old hit by a car. And to think I volunteered to switch."
As Johanna matched strides with her friend's half-running gait, the soft leather briefcase slapped against her thigh. "Need an extra pair of hands?"
"Hardly. If there was another body in the room, they'd be standing on the patient. Be glad you're out of the zoo. Not that I blame people for caring about a child, but if the patient was old, indigent or dying… Don't let me get started."
"Want to talk?" Together they dashed up the five steps to the emergency room level.
Rachel straight-armed the door. "Maybe I do. Dinner on—" The door closed and cut off the rest of her words.
Johanna frowned. By the time they found an evening to fit Rachel's schedule, she would have forgotten the incident that had triggered her anger. Instead of talking about the hospital, she would discuss her children. Despite their closeness, this topic always added to Johanna's aching knowledge that she had no one.
She continued to the exit. For the past few months, she'd wondered if the climb up the administrative ladder had been the right choice. Ten years ago, she'd been an ER nurse, meeting challenges and solving a dozen crises every day. The decision to leave the ER had been made for financial reasons. The higher salary had paid for her sister's and her parents' home health aides. Six months ago, the family obligations had ended, leaving Johanna with an empty social life.
For a moment, she stared at the red brick building. The hospital's center section was five stories, while the angled wings were four. The sight always made her think of a bird in flight. Lately, her office here had seemed more like home than the house eight blocks away.
A reluctance to move held her prisoner. Spray from the lawn sprinklers misted on her face and arms. She studied the bank of peonies along the walk leading to the hospital's front entrance. Their sweet scent mingled with the aroma of wet earth. With a sigh, she overcame the inertia and crossed the street.
Brisk steps carried her down the hill. In the distance, the Hudson River reflected the colors of the setting sun. At the bottom of the hill, she turned the corner. She hurried past houses dating from colonial days to a turn-of-the-century Victorian that towered over two houses built in the last ten years. Each house had a unique charm.
She paused beside the yew hedge surrounding the yard of the house where she'd lived all her life. As she strode up the walk, her hand brushed the clipped edges. The scent of roses reached her. Red, pink and white blooms covered the trellises at either end of the porch.
She climbed the steps, turned and paused. With arms crossed on her chest, she stared at the street. As though trying to erase a chill, her hands moved along her arms. A soft sigh escaped. The ice of loneliness couldn't be rubbed away like frost from windows on a winter morning.
Her hands dropped to her side, but she made no move to go inside where shadows of the past gathered. She had no desire to face memories of the years when she'd been a devoted sister and a dutiful daughter.
She looked at the darkening sky. Sometimes, she felt her entire life had been lived in the moments between day and night—with every instant tinged with gray, and every action controlled by duty and responsibility. Were they virtues or walls she'd erected to keep from reaching for life?
The sound of children's laughter carried across the hedge from the house next-door. Like a gusting wind, envy rose. Her childhood memories held few laughing moments, just those of trying to teach games to a sister who lacked the ability to learn.
With a habitual gesture, she combed her fingers through her hair. Life should be more than ritual and routine.
As she moved from the edge of the porch, a pair of lovers, lost in each other's eyes, strolled past. Johanna's eyes burned with unshed tears. For her, only dreams of romance existed and, in her fantasies, she found adventure.
She unlocked the door and stepped into the hall. The screen door closed with a snap. She flipped the light switch and the ceiling fan stirred the stale air.
In the living room, she dropped her briefcase on the sofa and turned on the CD player. Strains of Tchaikovosky's Sleeping Beauty followed her into the dining room.
Memories swamped her. The room became a miniature hospital ward where an elderly man and woman lay in twin electric beds. Matching walkers, wheelchairs and commodes stood against one wall.
Six months before, after the second death in three weeks, she'd scrubbed the walls and floor in an effort to ward off grief through frantic labor. After returning the hospital equipment, she'd hired a painter to re-do the room. The freshly painted walls and the refinished oak floor failed to blur the lingering memories.
Why did I allow my life to take this road?
Duty and responsibility. The voices were her parents'.
In the kitchen, she seasoned a chicken breast, put it under the broiler, made a salad and cleaned strawberries for dessert. As she ate, she searched for ways to fill the long hours until Monday, but ideas remained as illusive as the shadows in the house. Why did the weekend seem longer than the five-day work week?
After dinner, she opened the kitchen door and stepped onto the stoop. A crescent moon hung above the trees at the end of the yard. Wind rustled the leaves of the locust and oak trees and carried the scent of roses. She rested her hand on the wooden rail. Was there a different way to live?
She closed her eyes and entered the fantasy world she'd created as a child to escape what couldn't be changed. A few minutes later, with a sigh, Johanna forced herself to resist the lure of escape into the world of her dreams. As a child, she'd needed these fantasies to escape reality. Was this a habit she couldn't escape? How could she resist being in a world she could control?
She closed the kitchen door, slid the bolt into place and turned the security lock. Before going upstairs to the bedroom, she made rounds of the first floor to check the windows and front door.
* * * *
A BEAM OF SUNLIGHT slid between the slats of the venetian blinds and cast a band of brightness across Johanna's face. She stretched and touched her toes. Twenty minutes later, she'd showered and reached the kitchen for breakfast.
Once the household chores had been done, she changed into dark green slacks and a white sleeveless blouse. As she left the house, strains of Swan Lake flowed through the open window. Knowing the music would be playing when she returned allowed her to pretend someone waited for her.
As she strolled toward town, she skirted a game of hopscotch, then paused to watch the local double dutch team at practice. A pair of young boys on bicycles swerved from her path. As she walked along the sidewalk, she planned her expedition. After exploring several antique shops, she would stop at the library to see what new books had arrived.
Trees shaded the sidewalk from the bright morning sun. Cars, parked bumper to bumper, lined both sides of the street. As she passed the library, the crowd-jammed walk nearly made her change directions.
Johanna plunged through an opening between two groups of shrill-voiced women. She barely avoided a collision with the fist of a wildly gesticulating bleached blonde. A purse smacked her arm. Someone tramped on her foot. Though the mass of people brought a false sense of togetherness, she knew none of the strangers cared about her presence.
Moments later, she exhaled a sigh. An empty space in front of Blarney's promised a moment of calm. Last month, she and Rachel had eaten dinner here. The food had been delicious, but the noise from the partisan baseball fans at the bar had made conversation nearly impossible. She sank on one of the benches flanking the door and watched people eddy past.
"Blaine—" She cut off the greeting. Though the man who strolled past resembled her friend from freshman year at the local college, nearly twenty-five years had passed since then.
Her thoughts flashed to a time when gentle caresses and sweet kisses had been hers. She'd been in love with him, but there'd been no future for them. He'd had his life mapped out and so had she. At the end of the year, he'd left for a more prestigious school.
Johanna had never brought him home. Her parents would have been angry. Her sister had to be protected from the eyes of strangers.
Though Blaine's parents had also lived in Hudsonville, he'd seldom returned and on those rare occasions, he hadn't called. He'd never written. Through the local newspaper, she'd learned of his success as a lawyer and of his marriage to a socialite. Her love and dreams had died that day.
The plaintive cry sounded beneath the noise of the crowd. Johanna peered between the slats of the bench. A long-haired black-and-brown kitten huddled against the restaurant wall. The animal resembled the one she'd found a week after her eighth birthday. She'd called him Fluff. The kitten had been the first and last thing completely hers. On a gray day, Alice had caught the small bit of fur and squeezed him to death.
"She doesn't know any better." Johanna's mother had pulled the retarded child into her arms. "Pets aren't a good idea, Johanna."
Friends hadn't been acceptable either. Other children wouldn't understand what a special burden Alice was. The habit of standing apart from others had grown until Johanna shielded herself and seldom allowed people to brush more than the surface of her life.
Copyright © 2004 Janet Lane Walters